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| The Secret
of Salvation, Revealed by Unceasing Prayer Excerpt from The Way of a
Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His way, translated from the Russian
by R.M. French
The Pilgrim and his companion the
Professor are travelling on foot, on their way to the Solovetsky
Monastery located on the Solovetsky islands in the White Sea, where
they hope to join the monastic community called Anzersky. Along their
journey they meet a starets, skhimnik
and devout priest.
The Professor relates his tale, how he
came to be travelling on pilgrimage and the reason for his
spiritual quest. In the course of his narrative he reveals that he's on
his way to Anzersky to lead a contemplative life, but he submits his
doubts in all sincerity: in the first place he is not certain whether
the recommended methods of ascetism will lead him ultimately to his
goal, nor is he sure that he has what it takes to practice them.
The Skhimnik then
brings out a text and reads from it: The Secret of
Salvation, Revealed by Unceasing Prayer.
In addition to this, to implant in him the strongest conviction of the necessity of this complex and unified virtue, he hears the highest praise bestowed upon the beauty of virtue, he listens to censure of the baseness and misery of vice. All this is imprinted upon his mind by truthful promises either of majestic rewards and happiness or of tormenting punishment and misery in the life to come. Such is the special character of preaching in modern times. Guided in this way, one who ardently wishes for salvation sets off in all joy to carry out what he has learned and to apply to experience all he has heard and read. But alas! even at the first step he finds it impossible to achieve his purpose. He forsees and even finds out by trial that his damaged and enfeebled nature will have the upper hand of the convictions of his mind, that his freewill is bound, that his propensities are perverted, that his spiritual strength is but weakness. He naturally goes on to the thought: Is there not to be found some kind of means which will enable him to fulfil that which the law of God requires of him, which Christian devotion demands, and which all those who have found salvation and holiness have carried out? As the result of this and in order to reconcile in himself the demands of reason and conscience with the inadequacy of his strength to fulfil them, he applies once more to the preachers of salvation with the question: How am I to be saved? How is this inability to carry out the conditions of salvation to be justified; and are those who have preached all this that he has learned themselves strong enough to carry it out unswervingly?
Ask God. Pray to God. Pray for His help.
"So would it not have been more fruitful," the enquirer concludes, "If I had, to begin with and always in every circumstance, made a study of prayer as the power to fulfil all that Christian devotion demands and by which salvation is attained?" And so he goes on to the study of prayer: he reads; he meditates; he studies the teaching of those who have written on that subject. Truly he finds in them many luminous thoughts, much deep knowledge and words of great power. One reasons beautifully about the necessity of prayer; another writes of its power, its beneficial effect—of prayer as a duty, or of the fact that it calls for zeal, attention, warmth of heart, purity of mind, reconciliation with one's enemies, humility, contrition, and the rest of the necessary conditions of prayer. But what is prayer in itself? How does one actually pray? A precise answer which can be understood by everybody to these questions, primary and most urgent as they are, is very rarely to be found, and so the ardent enquirer about prayer is again left before a veil of mystery. As a result of his general reading there is rooted in his memory an aspect of prayer which, although devout, is only external, and he arrives at the conclusion that prayer is going to church, crossing oneself, bowing, kneeling, reading psalms, kanons and acathists. Generally speaking, this is the view of prayer taken by those who do not know the writings of the holy Fathers about inward prayer and contemplative action. At length, the seeker comes across the book called Philokalia, in which twenty-five holy Fathers set forth in an understandable way the scientific knowledge of the truth and of the essence of prayer of the heart. This begins to draw aside the veil from before the secret of salvation and of prayer. He sees that truly to pray means to direct the thought and the memory, without relaxing, to the recollection of God, to walk in His divine Presence, to awaken oneself to His love by thinking about Him, and to link the Name of God with one's breathing and the beating of one's heart. He is guided in all this by the invocation with the lips of the most Holy Name of Jesus Christ, or by saying the Jesus Prayer at all times and in all places and during every occupation, unceasingly. These luminous truths, by enlightening the mind of the seeker and by opening up before him the way to the study and achievement of prayer, help him to go on at once to put these wise teachings into practice.
Nevertheless, when he makes his attempts he is still not free from difficulty until an experienced teacher shows him (from the same book) the whole truth—that is to say, that it is prayer which is incessant which is the only effective means, alike for perfecting interior prayer and for the saving of the soul. It is frequency of prayer which is the basis, which holds together the whole system of saving activity. As Simeon the New Theologian says, "He who prays without ceasing unites all good in this one thing." So in order to set forth the truth of this revelation in all its fullness, the teacher develops it in the following way;
For the salvation of the soul, first of all true faith is necessary. Holy Scripture says, Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. xi. 6). He who has not faith will be judged. But from the same Holy Scriptures one can see that man cannot himself bring to birth in him faith even as a grain of mustard seed; that faith does not come from us, since it is the gift of God; that faith is a spiritual gift. It is given by the Holy Spirit. That being so, what is to be done? How is one to reconcile man's need of faith with the impossibility of producing it from the human side? The way to do this is revealed in the same Holy Scriptures: Ask, and it shall be given you. The Apostles could not of themselves arouse the perfection of faith within them, but they prayed to Jesus Christ, Lord, increase our faith. There you have an example of obtaining faith. It shows that faith is attained by prayer. For the salvation of the soul, beside true faith, good works are also required, for Faith, if it hath not works, is dead. For man is judged by his works and not by faith alone. If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments: Do not kill; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; hounour thy father and mother; love thy neighbour as thyself. And all these commandments are required to be kept together. For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all (Jas. ii. 10). So the Apostle James teaches. And the Apostle Paul, describing human weakness, says: By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified (Rom. iii. 20). For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin.... For to will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good I find not.... But the evil which I would not, that I do....With the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin (Rom. vii.). How are the required works of the law of God to be fulfilled when man is without strength, and has no power to keep the commandments? He hs no possibility of doing this until he asks for it, until he prays about it. Ye have no because ye ask not (Jas. iv. 2) the Apostle says is the cause. And Jesus Christ Himself says: Without Me ye can do nothing. And on the subject of doing it with Him, He gives this teaching: Abide in Me and I in you. He that abideth in Me and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit. But to be in Him means continually to feel His presence, continually to pray in His Name. If ye shall ask Me anything in My Name, that will I do. Thus the possibility of doing good works is reached by prayer itself. An example of this is seen in the Apostle Paul himself: three times he prayed for victory over temptation, bowing the knee before God the father, that He would give him strength in the inner man, and was at last bidden above all things to pray, and to pray continually about everything.
From what has been said above, it follows that the whole salvation of man depends upon prayer, and therefore it is primary and necessary, for by it faith is quickened and through it all good works are performed. In a word, with prayer everything goes forward successfully; without it, no act of Christian piety can be done. Thus, the condition that it should be offered unceasingly and always belongs exclusively to prayer. For the other Christian virtues, each of them has its own time. But in the case of prayer, uninterrupted, continuous action is commanded. Pray without ceasing. It is right and fitting to pray always, to pray everywhere. True prayer has its conditions. It should be offered with a pure mind and heart, with burning zeal, with close attention, with fear and reverence, and with the deepest humility. But what conscientious person would not admit that he is far from fulfilling those conditions, that he offers his prayer more from necessity, more by constraint upon himself than by inclination, enjoyment and love of it? About this, too, Holy Scripture says that it is not in the power of man to keep his mind steadfast, to cleanse it from unseemly thoughts, for the thoughts of man are evil from his youth, and that God alone gives us another heart and a new spirit, for both to will and to do are of God. The Apostle Paul himself says: My spirit (that is, my voice) prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful (I Cori. xiv. 14). We know not what we should pray for as we ought (Rom. viii. 26), the same writer asserts. From this it follows that we in ourselves are unable to offer true prayer. We cannot in our prayers display its esssential properties.
Such being the powerlessness of every human being, what remains possible for the salvation of the soul from the side of human will and strength? Man cannot acquire faith without prayer; the same applies to good works. And finally, even to pray purely is not within his power. What, then, is left for him to do? What scope remains for the exercise of his freedom and his strength, so that he may not perish but be saved?
Every action has its quality, and this quality God has reserved to His own will and gift. In order that the dependence of man upon God, the will of God, may be shown the more clearly, and that he may be plunged more deeply into humility, God has assigned to the will and strength of man only the quantity of prayer. He has commanded unceasing prayer, always to pray, at all times and in every place. By this the secret method of achieving true prayer, and at the same time faith, and the fulfilment of God's commandments, and salvation, are revealed. Thus it is quantity which is assigned to man, as his share; frequency of prayer is his own, and within the province of his will. This is exactly what the Fathers of the Church teach. St. Macarius the Great says truly to pray is the gift of grace. Isikhi says that frequency of prayer becomes a habit and turns into second nature, and without frequent calling upon the Name of Jesus Christ it is impossible to cleanse the heart. The Venerable Callisus and Ignatius counsel frequent, continuous prayer in the Name of Jesus Christ before all ascetic exercises and good works, because frequency brings even the imperfect prayer to perfection. Blessed Diadokh asserts that if a man calls upon the Name of God as often as possible, then he will not fall into sin. What experience and wisdom thre are here, and how near to the heart these practical instructions of the Fathers are. In their experience and simplicity they throw much light upon the means of bringing the soul to perfection. What a sharp contrast with the moral instructions of the theoretical reason! Reason argues thus: Do such and such good actions, arm yourself with courage, use the strength of your will, persuade yourself by considering the happy results of virtue—e.g., cleanse the mind and the heart from worldly dreams, fill their place with instructive meditations; do good and you will be respected and be at peace; live in the way that your reason and conscience require. But alas! with all its strength, all that does not attain its purpose without frequent prayer, without summoning the help of God.
Now let us go on to some further teaching of the Fathers, and we shall see what they say, e.g., about purifying the soul. St. John of the Ladder writes: "When the spirit is darkened by unclean thoughts, put the enemy to flight by the Name of Jesus repeated frequently. A more powerful and effective weapon than this you will not find, in heaven or on earth." St. Gregory the Sinaite teaches thus: "Know this, that no one can control his mind by himself, and, therefore, at a time of unclean thoughts call upon the Name of Jesus Christ often and at frequent intervals, and the thoughts will quieten down." How simple and easy a method! Yt it is tested by experience. What a contrast with the counsel of the theoretical reason, which presumptuously strives to attain to purity by its own efforts.
Noting these instructions based upon the experience of the holy Fathers, we pass on to the real conclusion: that the principal, the only, and a very easy method of reaching the goal of salvation and spiritual perfection is the frequency and the uninterruptedness of prayer, however feeble it may be. Christian soul, if you do not find within yourself th power to worship God in spirit and in truth, if your heart still feels no warmth and sweet satisfaction in mental and interior prayer, then bring to the sacrifice of prayer what you can, what lies within the scope of your will, what is within your power. Let the humble instrument of your lips first of all grow familiar with frequent persistent prayerful invocation. Let them call upon the mighty Name of Jesus Christ often and without interruption. This is not a great labourand is within the power of everyone. This, too, is what the precept of the holy Apostle enjoins: By Him therefore, let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His Name (Heb. xiii. 15).
Frequency of prayer certainly forms a habit and becomes second nature. It brings the mind and the heart into a proper state from time to time. Suppose a man continually fulfils this one commandment of God about ceaseless prayer, then in that one thing he would have fulfilled all; for if he uninterruptedly, at all times, and in all circumstances, offers the Prayer, calling in secret upon the most holy Name of Jesus (although at first he may do so without spiritual ardour and zeal and even forcing himself), then he will have no time for vain conversation, for judging his neighbours, for useless waste of time in sinful pleasures of the senses. Every evil thought of his would meet opposition to its growth. Every sinful act he contemplated would not come to fruition so readily as with an empty mind. Much talking and vain talking would be checked or entirely done away with, and every fault at once cleansed from the soul by the gracious power of so frequently calling upon the divine Name. The frequent exercise of prayer would often recall the soul from sinful action and summon it to what is the essential exercise of its skill, to union with God. Now do you see how important and necessary quantity is in prayer? Frequency in prayer is the one method of attaining pue and true prayer. It is the very best and most effective preparation for prayer, and the surest way of reaching the goal of prayer, and salvation.
To convince yourself finally about the necessity and fruitfulness of frequent prayer, note (1) that every impulse and every thought of prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit and the voice of your guardian angel; (2) that the Name of Jesus Christ invoked in prayer contains in itself self-existent and self-acting salutary power, and, therefore, (3) do not be disturbed by the imperfection or dryness of your prayer, and await with patience the fruit of frequently calling upon the divine Name. Do not listen to the inexperienced, thoughtless insiuation of the vain world that lukewarm invocation, even if it be importunate, is useless repetition. No; the power of the divine Name and the frequent calling upon it will reveal its fruit in its season. A certain spiritaul writer has spoken very beautifully about this. "I know," he says, "that to many so-called spiritual and wise philosophers, who search everywhere for sham greatness and practices that are noble in the eyes of reason and pride, the simple vocal, but frequent exercise of prayer appears of little significance, as a lowly occupation, even a mere trifle. But, unhappy ones, they deceive themselves, and they forget the teaching of Jesus Christ: Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (St. Matt. xviii. 3). They work out for themselves a sort of science of prayer, on the unstable foundations of the natural reason. Do we require much learning or thought or knowledge to say with a pure heart, "Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me"? Does not our Divine Teacher Himelf praise such frequent prayer? Have not wonderful answers been received and wonderful works done by this same brief but frequent prayer? Ah, Christian soul, pluck up your courage and do not silence the unbroken invocations of your prayer, although it may be that this cry of yours comes from a heart which is still at war with itself and half filled by the world. Never mind! Only go on with it and don't let it be silenced and don't be disturbed. It will itself purify itself by repetition. Never let your memory lose hold of this: Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world (I John iv. 4). God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things, says the Apostle.
And so, after all these convincing arguments that frequent prayer, so powerful in all human weakness, is certainly attainable by man and lies fully within his own will, make up your mind to try, even if only for a single day at first. Maintain a watch over yourself and make the frequency of your prayer such that far more time is occupied in the twenty-four hours with the prayerful calling upon the Name of Jesus Christ than with other matters. And this triumph of prayer over worldly affiars will in time certainly show you that this day has not been lost, but has been secured for salvation; that in the scales of the divine judgment frequent prayer outweighs your weaknesses and evil-doing and blots out the sins of that day in the memorial book of conscience; that it sets your feet upon the ladder of righteousness and gives you hope of sanctification in the life to come.
[The original has a note here as
follows: 'From the author's MS. received by Father Ambrose of the Dobry
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starets, pl. startsi—a
monk distinguished by his great piety, long
experience of the spiritual life, and gift for guiding other souls. Lay
folk frequently resort to startsi for spiritual counsel; an in
monastery a new member of the community is attached to a starets,
trains and teaches him.
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